Like Rachel Chu’s visit to her boyfriend’s home country-turned-baptism of fire into the jaw-dropping wealth of its snobbish social circle, CRAZY RICH ASIANS is challenged to hurdle the waning effectiveness of the rom-com genre while staying true to the cultural and satirical backbone of its literary counterpart. Fortunately, the cinematic adaptation is enthusiastic, heart-warming and winsome; not just limited to the endearing central romance but also a satisfying showcase of love for one’s family, legacy and identity that keeps the film’s designer heels on the ground while revolving on its opulent orbit.
Based on Kevin Kwan’s best-selling novel which is the first in the trilogy that tastefully chronicles the lives of the elusive, ‘old rich’ Young-Shang family, CRAZY RICH ASIANS is both a delectable appetizer that entices the best of what the genre has to offer in a long while, and a decadent main course that takes pride on its well-meaning acknowledgment of its heritage. Here is a film that embraces the fusion of the West influences into the East without losing sight of its ideals; one that recognizes its roots and assuredly forges its own path without trampling another. While the film demographic is specific (one percent of Singapore’s one percent) and the characters’ histories are deepened by their cultural background, its story about love is multi-faceted and universal. Rachel (Constance Wu) and Nick’s (Henry Golding) romance ushers a familiar yet necessary inclusion of familial affairs that expands the film’s emotional bearings, like the pair’s respective relationships with their mothers. Nick is reunited with his best friend Colin Khoo (Chris Pang) who is one-half of the much-awaited ‘Wedding of the Century’. As she attends vicious social gatherings, Rachel is aided by Peik Lin (Awkwafina), her then-college roommate and part of the ‘new rich’; and the Nick’s refined cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan embodying beauty, grace and sophistication). The film introduces but doesn’t delve much on Nick’s extended family who would play bigger roles in the second and third books (like the materialistic Eddie Cheng, the obnoxious Young sisters, the always dependable but snarky Oliver T’sien portrayed by Nico Santos, and the gold-digging starlet Kitty Pong) but the script by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim is streamlined for the better.
What seemed like an ‘us against the world’ premise, CRAZY RICH ASIANS sensibly digs into the clash of culture and perception amidst the obvious monetary gap that immediately triggers the prejudice against the film’s main protagonist. As the ABC (American-born Chinese) and NYU economics professor Rachel Chu, Wu enlivens her book character with charm, cleverness and confidence as she navigates Nick’s titular baggage. Even though possessing a learned credential and pleasing attitude, Rachel’s lack of financial pedigree and unconventional upbringing makes her an unsuitable choice in the proud eyes of the ‘old rich’. But for Eleanor Young (Michelle Yeoh), Rachel is a threat that pulls her son away from the family and their legacy. In just the first scene as she and her family were subjected in the film’s sole depiction of racism, Yeoh establishes Eleanor as a formidable matriarch who refuses to settle for less. But unlike her book persona who verges into ludicrousness, Yeoh’s Eleanor is someone who can be sympathized with despite being at odds with Rachel. The mahjong play-off between her and Rachel is an unexpected venue for a moving emotional climax that juxtaposes on Rachel’s academic discussion on game theory. Both are playing with Nick’s welfare in their minds but it is Rachel who realizes in her happy end that the way to win is to let herself lose.
Jon M. Chu has directed numerous blockbuster sequels (Now You See Me 2, G.I. Joe: Retaliation) that CRAZY RICH ASIANS is a chance to pave his own vision. Infusing montages of Singapore’s famous hawker food and a dumpling-making session add intimacy in Rachel’s immersion to Nick’s social stratosphere. Rachel and her glam team happily dance into the Mandarin version of “Material Girl” while “Yellow” softly plays in the final pivotal scenes, though the film could have incorporated pop culture of its local flavor apart from the recognizable Singaporean tourist spots. The appearance of Malay royalty (Princess Intan played by Kris Aquino) seemed out-of-the-blue but her presence served as a stand-in for a royal bloodline connection that the film opted to exclude to keep its narrative focused on the core characters. The translation of affluence from page to screen is toned down (Tyersall Park, which is the Youngs’ crown estate, was underwhelming) but manageable (and still enticing) since the lifestyles are so overtop that it was hard to keep track of what was being described in the books. Nevertheless, the lavish displays are nothing as compared to the heart of the film which is Rachel and Nick’s love for each other and it’s the only thing that matters.
CRAZY RICH ASIANS is not as absurd and riotous as its source material in mining the excesses of its fictional elite (the sequence where Rachel tries to escape the wedding carnival is the closest feel of crazy), perhaps stowing the intriguing and juicy chapters in the next installments. Modern-day observations about cultural and economic differences are hilariously on point, but the film’s highlights are the emotional honesty that pours in Rachel’s scenes with her mother, Kerry (Tan Kheng Hua), Astrid’s confrontation with her husband and the subtle interactions between Nick and Eleanor. More importantly, the conscious choice of empowering Rachel by embracing her identity and using it as her weapon against anyone who wields it as a flaw is what makes her one of the most resilient and realest protagonists onscreen.
Having watched various Hollywood movies with Caucasian leads, it was truly a delight to see Asian actors claim the spotlight and not being relegated to supporting roles or into the sidelines. To wait after twenty five years for the next predominantly Asian-American ensemble since The Joy Luck Club was baffling but hopefully, CRAZY RICH ASIANS becomes a precedent (now that a sequel is in the works). I may not be an Asian-American nor represented in the story (which is okay but as a fan of the books and someone who simply pines for a good rom-com, this film is a win for me.